Day Six-Our Own Landing in France
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
On D-Day, Allied forces crossed over the English Channel via boat or airplane; seventy-five years later, the VECTORS VFT team crossed by going under it. I’ve taken the Eurostar bullet train from London to Paris several times, and it never gets old. About a twenty-minute portion of the roughly two and a half hour trip goes under the English Channel, and coming out into the light surrounding the idyllic French countryside always gets me to nearly press my face against the window like a little kid outside a toy shop. Unlike my previous trips, though, this one felt weightier in historical importance, and even more exciting for me considering our final destination--Normandy.
We were on a tight schedule--early train to Paris, pick up a rental van, somehow get through Paris traffic successfully, and get to the village of Sannerville in time for the commemorative parachute jumps scheduled for the afternoon. Again facing a Twitch front page time slot, we had to figure out a lot in a short amount of time--finding parking in the village (which would likely be packed), navigating to the best viewing point for the jumps, and getting everything set up in time. There had been only so much we could prepare in advance, so once again we were trusting our instincts and our ability to take advantage of any opportunities presented to manufacture some of our own good “luck.”
Somewhere in the French countryside, speeding toward the capital at over 200 mph, it occurred to me that our streaming in Normandy would be an altogether different kind of challenge for us, At Duxford, we’d been concentrated in one place for three days, an area in which we only had so many places to go, only so many possible options. And that had been challenging enough. In Normandy, we would be traveling to wherever we chose to go on a daily or even hourly basis At Duxford, we had to work around 10,000 or so people; in Normandy, just one location might have that many people milling about, considering the hundreds of thousands of people expected to descend on the region for the 75th anniversary commemorations.
It also occurred to me on the train that, for this portion of the trip, it was going to fall to me to make the calls on where to go and when, on what days, and so on. Julia, Das, and Saber all had varying degrees of significant expertise on aviation, aerodynamics, and technological knowledge that had been on full display at Duxford. My contribution had been to give historical context to what we were seeing. That would be my job, too, in Normandy, but unlike at Duxford the team would now have to rely on my historical knowledge of D-Day and the geography and battle history of the Normandy coast to actually choose our locations.
I didn’t say so at the time, but this was intimidating. To be sure, everyone on the team chipped in on the final decisions of where to go and when (I’d lay out options and we’d go over logistics and suitability of each option for viewer interest), but nevertheless I had to make sure I knew what the hell I was talking about before I made suggestions. I didn’t want to break our streak of fantastic broadcasts by choosing a “dud” location, or one that would be impossible to get to due to the crowds. I also knew that despite having three full days in Normandy, we wouldn’t be able to even get close to seeing everything possible having to do with the D-Day landings. So choices had to be made….
But we knew where we’d start--Sannerville, the location of some of the earliest landings of Allied troops on D-Day. Just a few miles behind the beaches in the British attack sector (the eastern end of the Normandy coast target zone), Sannerville lies due east of the large city of Caen--a major objective for Allied forces. British paratroopers descended on fields to the east and north of the village early on June 6, 1944 in darkness, under fire from German defenders. Their job was to seize crossing points from east to west over the Orne River, effectively blocking any attempted German reinforcements from crossing the river and reaching the landing beaches. Sannerville therefore was the site of some of the first combat action faced by Allied troops on D-Day. British paratroopers performed admirably well, securing their objectives and helping ensure that British and Canadian troops landing later that morning had the best chance possible for victory.
For that reason, Sannerville was chosen to be the first location in Normandy for commemorative parachute jumps by current paratroopers and a few D-Day vets (all in their 90s now!). As we’d learned the day before, a number of the planes at Duxford would be involved in the commemorative jumps at Sannerville, so the chance to “close the loop” by seeing planes like “That’s All Brother” fly over us and drop troops like it did seventy-five years ago was an exciting prospect. All we had to do was get there on time...and find parking...and find the right location...and vantage point.
You get the picture. We had to hurry.
Once we arrived in Paris, for a time it looked like the French capital would thwart us. Renting a car in another country with a language barrier is tricky in the best of situations; renting one from the busiest train terminal in Europe on a busy summer day isn’t one of them. Lines are long, the process is confusing, and broken English / French over details is the most unpredictable of wild cards when it comes to getting something done quickly. Once we navigated that successfully, though, we had to do it all again--the first van they gave us wasn’t big enough. Repeat the process. Clock ticking.
Fortunately, we had gracious hosts that, as American expats living in Europe, provided much needed European travel insight and expertise as we raced the clock to reach Sannerville.
[ http://gerkengetaways.com/] Kathryn and Tim run a boutique travel agency that specializes in European destination trips and tours. She also has a gift for driving and literally took the wheel to guide us through the insane midday traffic in Paris, navigating clogged streets with aggressive Parisian drivers and swerving motorcyclists and jaywalking pedestrians--at one point all in a torrential downpour--until she got us out onto the really expensive tollways southwesterly towards Sannerville. Kathryn did all the driving, including back through the Paris Gauntlet a few days later on our return journey. A huge Merci boucoup to you, Kathryn!
A couple of hours after leaving Paris, we pulled off the tollway and into Sannerville, a gorgeously intimate and picturesque village that, by itself, captures the image in the popular imagination of what the Normandy countryside looks like-- open hectares of wheat farms and hamlets divied up by dirt berms or thick hedgerows, narrow cobblestone alleyways twisting and turning between stone and brick homes that have borne silent witness to hundreds of years of history. As we absorbed what felt like driving into a time warp, we saw parachutes floating down over the eastern end of the town. Panic ensued for a moment that we’d somehow gotten the jump times wrong (we were in the village an hour before the scheduled time), until we noticed the jumpers were coming out of modern military aircraft. It turned out that these were the “warm up” acts. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, we got our bearings and then--after some searching--a parking place among the hundreds of other cars flooding the streets of the tiny town. Fittingly, we parked on Rue de 6 Juis--June 6th Street. This town, like every other one in Normandy, large or small, honors that particular day deeply, as we would come to see vividly over the following days. We then got the gear put together and powered up, took some pictures of the parachutes floating down towards the ground, and added ourselves to the stream of humanity walking towards the landing zone.
What we found was a party. Several thousand people had gathered at the edge of town for an outdoor celebration that reminded us of a Fourth of July celebration or a town-wide block party. A marching band trumpeted out the most eclectic playlist of all time (a mashup of 80’s hair bands, Taylor Swiftesque pop, wedding reception rock favorites, among others) with full sing-a-longs, and families spread out blankets and picnics all over the open spaces surrounding “Landing Zone K,'' the codename for the British landing area next to Sannerville. The residents of the entire town and surrounding area, plus no small amount of foreign visitors like us, lined the landing zone many meters deep. With a commanding view of the horizon in all directions, it was an ideal location from which to observe any approaching aircraft coming across the Channel.
With that in mind, Das and Saber found a perfect spot to set up the tripod camera and broadcast, away from the crush of people, in the northwest corner of the field. There were delays in the arrival of the DC-3s / C-47s ferrying over the paratroopers from Duxford, so we were on the air in plenty of time for our front page time on Twitch. And right away, we had great stuff to share. The “warm up” parachute drops continued one after the other, with dozens of parachutes floating down in waves towards us--and,in some cases, nearly landing on top of us--as the crowds below cheered. Chat members in the UK and elsewhere kept us apprised of the takeoffs, flight plan, and progress of the planes from Duxford across the Channel, so as our own anticipation built so did our audience’s. Das and I reviewed the history of the Landing Zone and of the broader airborne operation in the dark early morning hours of D-Day, and we wondered what it must have been like to live in Sannerville during the assault--a town that had endured four years of Nazi occupation, hoping for a liberation but knowing it would be violent and life-threatening to the extreme, then ducking inside their homes as heavy German anti-aircraft guns opened up on the paratroopers and aircraft above, knowing the invasion was underway….it made the celebratory mood of the locals make that much more sense, as this was a kind of second independence holiday for Normandy and, eventually, for all of France. It was a celebration of liberation and a return to a free life.
Definitely worth celebrating.
About 90 minutes after their scheduled arrival time, off in the distance we saw a couple of dozen dots flying in formation, headed towards us. But, to herald their arrival, from above us and coming through the cloud cover trailing red smoke behind each of them as they fell, came the British “Red Devils” professional parachute team, made up of some of the most accomplished parachutists in the British Commonwealth. Their descent looked like red rain falling towards the ground before each parachute opened in sequence, eliciting gasps and cheers from the crowd. Their loudest cheers, however, came with when one of the paratroopers unfurled a massive Union Jack flag. As it turned out, he was tandem jumping with 95-year old Harry Read, a British D-Day airborne veteran who had parachuted into that same field seventy-five years earlier. They landed less than a hundred yards away from our camera. It was an incredible moment.
Just as Read and the Red Devils had hauled in their chutes, the Duxford flight arrived overhead, lined up in formation just as we’d seen them practice the day before in England. Coming in at about 1000 feet over the field, one by one the planes let loose lines of paratroopers in precise intervals at uniform speed, each trooper falling free for several moments before their chutes opened. In seconds, the sky above and around Sannerville filled with parachutes. All floated slowly downwards, moving back and forth on the currents as the people below them craned their necks and cheered exuberantly. It was another one of those ever so brief--and therefore, ever so memorable--snapshot moments that seemed to bring the history of seventy-five years prior within our grasp, if only for just a fleeting moment. To see hundreds of chutes descending down on a quaint French village gave everyone a hint--only a hint---of what it must have been like on that most important of days in the Second World War.
This went on for what seemed like an hour but was closer to twenty minutes--one plane after another--until several hundred troopers had landed all over Landing Zone K. The C-47s and DC-3s circled the area repeatedly before heading off to their new staging area at Caen’s airport. As everyone milled about and began the slow treks back to their cars, we continued to broadcast until we got back to our van, blown away by what we’d seen and captured on film. Chat loved every second of it, too. It was an incredible way to start our time in Normandy, and as we drove further east to our lovely AirBnB home in Bayeux (the first major town liberated by the Allies on D-Day), we began to plan for the next day…
...June 6. The actual 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. We’d been planning for it for weeks, and suddenly it just arrived. We had options of what to do and where to go, but we’d have to make some trade offs either way. But we held off on that until late in the evening, after we’d settled in following a big dinner and a beverage or two. By the time we all finally fell into our beds after replaying the sky full of parachutes over and over again, we had a plan for not only the next day, but the following one as well. We couldn’t wait to get started.
And, just like us that night, you’ll have to wait a bit longer for it to arrive. Come back soon to find out the rest--it’s quite a story.